English English language Etymology Expression Grammar Linguistics Phrase origin Usage Word origin

When the subject is a dummy

Q: I’ve read your recent post on deconstructing “it” and I have one additional question. What does “it” refer to in sentences like “It is raining” and “It is snowing”? I’ve heard various explanations of this usage, but I’d appreciate your take on it.

A: English speakers have been using the pronoun “it” to talk about the weather since Anglo-Saxon days. The “it” that we use to denote weather conditions (“it was drizzling” … “it’s hot”) is often called a “dummy” or “empty” or “artificial” subject.

The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language says the “it” here has no semantic meaning and serves “the purely syntactic function of filling the obligatory subject position.”

The Oxford English Dictionary describes this “it” as “a semantically empty or non-referential subject” that dates back to Old English, where it was frequently used in statements about the weather.

The OED’s earliest recorded usage in reference to weather is from an Old English translation, possibly written around the 10th century, of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History of the English Nation, which he probably completed in Latin in 731.

In the relevant passage, “hit rine & sniwe & styrme ute” (“it rain & snow & storm out”), the verbs are in the subjunctive.

We’ll expand the OED citation and give a modern English translation: “as if you at feasting should sit with your lords and subjects in winter-time, and a fire be lit and your hall warmed, and it should rain and snow and storm outside.”

This Middle English example from around 1300 needs no translating: “Hor-frost cometh whan hit is cold.”

The  “it” we use in statements about the weather, according to the OED, is part of a broader category of usages in which the pronoun is “the subject of an impersonal verb or impersonal statement, expressing action or a condition of things simply, without reference to any agent.”

These usages would include statements about the time or the season (“it was about noon” … “it was winter”); about space, distance, or time (“it was long ago” … “it’s too far”); and about other kinds of conditions (“how is it going?” … “it was awkward” … “if it weren’t for the inconvenience”).

The Cambridge Grammar wouldn’t use the term “dummy subject” to describe most of these non-weather usages. In its view, a dummy subject “cannot be replaced by any other NP [noun phrase].”

So Cambridge regards the “it” in a sentence like “It is five o’clock” or “It is July 1” as a predicative complement rather than a dummy subject, because “it” could be replaced by “the time” or “the date.”

Some linguists, however, might argue that none of the “it” usages we’ve discussed are true dummy subjects, but we’ll stop here.

To quote Shakespeare (Macbeth, around 1606), “If it were done, when ’tis done, then ’twer well, / It were done quickly.”

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